Criminal Justice| ‘Practically difficult to achieve absolute consistency in sentencing’ but here’s what the Courts should do: SC

Supreme Court: Explaining the principles of sentencing policy, the 3-judge bench of NV Ramana, CJ and Surya Kant* and AS Bopanna, JJ has held that while there are practical difficulties in achieving absolute consistency in regards to sentencing, the awarding of just and proportionate sentence remains the solemn duty of the Courts and they should not be swayed by nonrelevant factors while deciding the quantum of sentence.

Principle of proportionality

Explaining the principle of proportionality, the Court said that this principle of commensurate sentencing treats offenders as agents capable of evaluating their own illegal conduct and the social censure associated with it, which is communicated to them by imposing a proportionate sentence. The exercise for assessing ‘proportionality’ is thus dependent upon the gravity of the offence which is determined according to –

(a) mischief caused or risk involved in the offense;

(b) the overall conduct of the offender and;

(c) motives ascribed to the felon.

The Court also stressed upon the guarantee of even-handedness before the law(s), as enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution and said that the equality of treatment so as to eliminate discriminatory practices in the award of sentencing, is integral to the canons of proportionality.

It, however, clarified that,

“… we cannot be incognizant of the fact that there are practical difficulties in achieving absolute consistency in regards to sentencing. It must be candidly acknowledged that there is an element of discretion present while adjudicating the issue of sentence, however, the same cannot be exercised in an unprincipled manner. This Court has explicitly ruled out the practice of awarding disproportionate sentences, especially those that showcase undue leniency, for it would undermine the public confidence in efficacy of law.”

What should the Courts do? 

Noticing that the sentencing policy keeps pace with changing time, the Court said that the primary emphasis while deciding the quantum of sentence should lie on the gravity or penal value of the offense. However, other guiding elements of rehabilitative justice model, including, appreciation of grounds for mitigation of sentence also deserve to be duly considered within the permissible limits of judicial discretion.

“The awarding of just and proportionate sentence remains the solemn duty of the Courts and they should not be swayed by nonrelevant factors while deciding the quantum of sentence. Naturally, what factors should be considered as ‘relevant’ or ‘non-relevant’ will depend on the facts and circumstances of each case, and no straight jacket formula can be laid down for the same.”

[Surinder Singh v. State, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 1135, decided on 26.11.2021]


*Judgment by: Justice Surya Kant

Know Thy Judge | Justice Surya Kant


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